I currently work in an independent dog boutique, and I’ve had people ask me if I’m afraid of being bitten by a dog. The answer is no, I’m not really afraid of that at all, and I really had to think about why.
I was raised with large, “aggressive” dog breeds, and one just learns how to approach them and read warning signs without even knowing you’re actively reading them. For someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience with dogs, it may not be innate knowledge. This is some very basic, bare minimum technique to approaching a dog that everyone should be familiar with.
First and foremost, you never want to approach any dog – familiar or unfamiliar – when it’s cornered and unable to escape. Even normally friendly or calm dogs can get nervous when they’re backed against a wall.
If you watch a lot of people on the street, their first instinct when approaching a dog is to lean over and pet their head. This is a good one to try to think about from the dog’s point of view – not only is it an intimidating, aggressive move physically just because this tall thing is looming over, but it’s a show of dominance in dog body language. When you see a dog mounting another or even something as simple as putting a paw on the other dog’s back or head, it’s establishing dominance.
No matter the size, if the dog you’re approaching is nervous, stressed, not confident, or simply not friendly toward people, it’s the perfect excuse and angle for a bite.
A much better approach is to speak soothingly, not make eye contact, and approach from underneath. It’s much less aggressive to pet a dog’s chest or under their chin, and if they do get the notion to snap, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for them to reach your hand quickly and will give you time to back off.
It’s also very important to note that you’re much more likely to get bit by a small dog being held by an owner. A Chihuahua or Yorkie might be just fine and happy on the ground, but for many of them, they get protective and aggressive when picked up. I strongly suggest not reaching for a dog in anyone’s arms.
An important part of this is being aware of dog body language. If he looks stressed or nervous, it’s best to not approach at all in that situation and leave him be. Signs of stress are heavy panting, frequent lip licking, turning the head or body away from the source of stress. It’s definitely a bad idea to approach when he’s looking at you out of the extreme corner of his eye – something a lot of trainers call “whale eye”. A wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to be approached, so watch for other signs.
One of the biggest mistakes people make are forcing themselves on a dog, despite negative body language or even bigger signs. I can’t count how many times I’ve told people that my Border Collie mix is shy and doesn’t like to be approached, and almost every time they immediately say “Oh, dogs love me” and try to force her into a corner so they can pet her. It’s amazing when someone follows her under a table to do this, that’s probably the best way to get a bite in the face.
If you’re on a walk or in someone’s home and a dog isn’t immediately receptive to your attention, the very best thing you can do is ignore him. If he’s interested in you, he’ll approach on his own terms, and if he’s not then you’re safe and he doesn’t have to be terrified.